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The History of the Salad Bar

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The Khantessa and I recently had a brief discussion on the subject of the salad bar's history in the US. Specifically, we wondered when it appeared, and when it became "all the rage." She said she scarcely remembers them before the 1970s, and although I have no consequential memories before late 1970, I suggested that the salad bar probably began in the 1950s.

I'm sure the Hound community can shed light on this topic.

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  1. RJ Grunts in Chicago ( the first restaurant in what became the Lettuce Entertain You group) in the late 70s is the earliest salad bar that I distinctly recall. Perhaps there were earlier ones but it was the one that popularized the genre.

    1. Google is our friend:

      http://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.c...

      29 Replies
      1. re: c oliver

        Phht.

        That's just American salad bars.

        Just off the top of my head, I'm sure Italians with their antipasti bars would take a bit of umbrage to that, as would many Koreans (read: banchan).

        One should not forget that the globe is round.

        1. re: ipsedixit

          Valid. Do they call it a salad bar in Korea, Spain or Italy?

          1. re: HillJ

            Probably not "salad bar" in those words exactly. :-)

            1. re: ipsedixit

              :>)

            2. re: HillJ

              I cannot recall ever coming across anything like an American salad bar in Spain (a country I visit at least once a year).

              1. re: Harters

                Me either. That's why I asked ips.

            3. re: ipsedixit

              Er, actually OP IS talking about the US.

              1. re: c oliver

                Again, do you think that antipasti bars were non-existent in the US prior to 1970? Or whatever date it is we are now wrapping our American-centric brains around?

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  Entirely possible that salad bars or antipasti bars were nonexistent in the US (for it IS the US that the OP is addressing). None of us have dined in every restaurant in the 60s, but as a group if salad bars were around, I'd bet that somebody remembers them.

                  1. re: sal_acid

                    Since I was in the American South at that time I'm confident there were no Italian antipasti bars :) And had there been salad bars, I'm guessing they'd have had iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber. And a choice of French or 1000 Island dressings.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      In NJ, they would also have carafes of oil & vinegar, croutons, grated cheddar cheese and black olives. 1966. Not anything more than you'd find at an American grocery market like ACME.

                      1. re: HillJ

                        Well, you Yankees were far ahead of us and, since I no long claim the South for a bunch of reasons, you probably still are.

                        1. re: c oliver

                          In 1966, I would have gladly traded places with ya. I thought so much was dull back then, I didn't appreciate it enough.

                        2. re: HillJ

                          Many diners in NJ have offered salad bars for a number of years. One of the best that I've found is the Coach House on Rt 4 in Hackensack.

                          1. re: njmarshall55

                            Excellent point. NJ does love their salad bars.

                        3. re: c oliver

                          In my house we called the dressings red and pink.

                      2. re: ipsedixit

                        I agree that many here have American-centric brains. Could this be because many here LIVE in the US? If we lived in Japan, I am sure we would have Japanese-centric brains. Nothing wrong with that.

                    2. re: ipsedixit

                      Banchan is not a salad bar. No bar.

                    3. re: c oliver

                      So it wasn't until 1970's that it has become somewhat a business model, right?

                      I wonder if salad bar (the business model) has past its prime or it is still swing up. I have a feeling that it has not past its prime just yet.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        I think it is past it's prime. Though there are still are plenty around. I cite as an example, the demise, at least around here (Austin) of the souper salad restaurants. Basically, just a salad bar with a baked potato and soup bar.

                        1. re: TroyTempest

                          A good point. I still remember dedicated salad bar restaurants like Fresh Choice. These, I don't think, are doing so well.

                          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fresh_Ch...

                          I might have misspoke. I was thinking about the concept of simply having a salad bar. Let's it be a dedicated salad bar restaurant, or having a salad bar as part of a restaurant.

                          I got this notion that many restaurants are incorporating more salad bars as part of the model. However, upon closer thinking, this may not be true.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            Fresh Choice is another one we used to have. It has been gone close to 10 years now, i'll bet. I liked that place.

                          2. re: TroyTempest

                            Whever we go to Arizona we always eat at either Souper!Salad or Sweet Tomatoes. Neither of those salad chains are in Minnesota because we live in one of the few states that pays minimum wage to wait staff.

                            1. re: John E.

                              <one of the few states that pays minimum wage to wait staff.>

                              Why would paying minimum wage to wait staff makes it more difficult to have Salad! or Sweet Tomatoes or Salad or Sweet Tomatoes. I would think having an "all you can eat" salad restaurant means you can hire fewer wait staffs -- since the customers serve themselves.

                              I mean. I am guessing that Minnesota has Chinese buffets and Indian buffets, right?

                              (just curious)

                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                I think that customers think you don't have to tip at a serve yourself salad bar, or tip very little. I was always conflicted, because they took your drink order, but that was about it. So i didn't feel like i had to tip as much as a regular waitperson...
                                But, i also don't get why that would knock out the salad bar places.

                                1. re: TroyTempest

                                  We tip well at these places because the number of times they clear the tables they are actually working harder than at a traditional restaurant.

                                2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  The wait staff at these kinds of restaurants clear the tables of plates whenever somebody leaves the table to get more food. The busines model works if the staff is paid $2.37/hour but not at $7.25/hour.

                                  There are aot of national restaurant chains without stores in Minnesota because of the minimum wage for wait staff.

                                  1. re: John E.

                                    Oh, i get it now. In Minn., waitstaff get the minimum wage. Doh!

                                  2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    I forgot to address your last point. There are a lot of Chinese buffets in the Twin Cities, but they are not part of national chains. I think many of them employ a lot of family members, that might be the difference. Years ago, in the 70s, a friend of my father's owned a DQ franchise. He paid his kids $15/hour. It was a business expense but the point was to pay for their college tuition.

                                    There are a few Indian buffet restaurants in the Twin Cities, but not nearly as many as there are Asian restaurants.

                          3. First salad bar/cafeteria I went to was in 1966 inside a bowling alley. Route 22, Mountainside, NJ The Jolly Troll. They even had mechanical Disney-like trolls dressed up in the windows holding food trays. First time I ever touched 'tongs' and took a tray, plate and silver to make up a salad for myself. I remember it very clearly because the neighborhood I lived in was so excited.

                            1. I googled "salad bar history" and found Wikipedia, which names a restaurant that claims to have invented the US salad bar in 1950. I wonder also if the Scandinavian smorgasbord can be counted as an ancestor. I remember smorgasbords in Chicago in the 1940s and surely they were in Sweden before that.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Querencia

                                Q, I just did the same. Here is the wiki link, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salad_bar

                                But I presume that the OP wanted to hear some personal reminisces as she could easily have used google or Wikipedia too.

                                1. re: Querencia

                                  Interestingly, in the region where I grew up, Smorgasbord was the word routinely used for a hot buffet, particularly Chinese ones. It was often abbreviated to the oh-so-appetizing "smorg".

                                  But while the local chinese smorgasbords usually had salad bars, a salad bar alone was not a smorg.

                                  1. re: Querencia

                                    A nice Danish restaurant in Manhattan called The Copenhagen had a real smorgasbord format in the 60's -huge shrimp, herring, salmon, all iced down. Chuck's Steak House in New Haven had a salad bar at that time.

                                  2. Just wanted to say I Loooove this thread.
                                    Kinda makes me all gooshy-warmy like leg-warmers and Jane Fonda.

                                    Ahhh,... The Salad Bar.

                                    Too young to remember the 70's. I do recall they were very popular in the 1980s. Plenty of iceberg lettuce and boiled eggs and canned/drained chickpeas. Croutons and bacon-bits. Oh yeah......

                                    1. Maybe not a Salad Bar per se, but in Atlantic City, there used to be a place called Zaberer's (60s)....and they had a food bar with appetizers you could enjoy before they sat you at your table. They would escort you to the bar and more or less force you to order drinks for the family....after an hour or so, then they would seat you at the table.

                                      I was eating Chopped Liver and Gifilte Fish before I ever knew what it was.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: fourunder

                                        Yup, early buffet days in AC/NJ. Definitely ran into those carpeted halls of basic food fare. Late 70's though and by that time salad bars were common.

                                        1. re: fourunder

                                          Yes, the Khantessa also fondly recalls Zaberer's from the Wildwood area back in the late 60s/early 70s.

                                          1. re: fourunder

                                            I have been Zaberized myself. Cool place back then. Ed McMahon was their shill.

                                          2. Maybe not salad bar?? On route to the "shore" from SE PA to WIldwood and later Ocean City, there was a restaurant called Zaberer's (spelling?). A "steak house" if I recall. They started you out with a HUGE snifter of crushed ice with all kinda of veggies... celery, carrots, olives, etc.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: kseiverd

                                              Did you go up to a bar?

                                            2. The first salad bars I recall in Minnesota were at Bonanza Steakhouse restaurants in the mid 70s.

                                              I actually like salad bars, the only problem being that so many people are using those tongs. The same problem as any buffet I guess.

                                              1. I'm currently watching Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown, and Sizzler in Koreatown...

                                                1. I remember salad bars in the late 70s in Pennsylvania. Even the small mom and pop places had small salad bars with lettuce and a few cold sides and maybe a soup. In the 80s, the chains like Sizzler and Bonanza became very popular.

                                                  1. The '70's were when they started to become popular but the earliest one was started around 1950.

                                                    Interesting summary:

                                                    http://www.foodtimeline.org/restauran...

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: meatn3

                                                      Interesting, indeed.

                                                    2. The first one i remember was at the Steak and Ale in Houston around 1970, or 71 when i was about 10. I used to love it, because i could put blue cheese dressing and blue cheese crumbles on my salad.

                                                      I also remember salad bars that weren't quite as good around that time at places like sizzler, bonanza, etc.

                                                      1. The was an episode of That 70's Show where Red encounters a Salad Bar for the first time. He grumbles that this is something that should be done in the kitchen.

                                                        1. There were some in the early-mid 70s: I used to stretch my student food budget by learning how to pile up items at the salad bar that charged by the plate. I don't remember any before that, since I didn't eat out much back then.

                                                          I was really happy to find a steakhouse chain in Denmark that offered a full salad bar on a trip a few years ago: I always crave vegetables in Europe (the waitress took pains to explain it did NOT come with potatoes, which was apparently very important).

                                                          Fresh Choice is gone? I haven't been looking for them for a while, but they were decent and inexpensive.

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: tardigrade

                                                            That reminds me that in Brazil they have "kilo" restaurants where, of course, they charge by the weight.

                                                            1. re: c oliver

                                                              When I was an exchange student in Brazil, we spent a lot of time at por kilo restaurants trying to figure out which items were simultaneously filling and not very heavy.

                                                            2. re: tardigrade

                                                              Google "salad bar hacking" to see the contemporary version of a salad pile. :)

                                                            3. I, too, remember Zaberers. My High School sweetheart wanted to take me somewhere fancy. We were looking over the menu and he was seeming frustrated.......but when I asked if anything was wrong, the problem was that he couldn't find mashed potatoes anywhere on the menu. I had to point out that they were called 'Creamed, Whipped Potatoes'. We teased about that for a couple of years.

                                                              1. My earliest memory of a salad bar was Chicago's high end Swedish Kungsholm Restaurant in the 1960s. Of course, this was a smorgasbord and featured hot items, as well. I am sure that Swedish smorgasbords were in existence before 1900 (but rarely available in the U.S.).

                                                                The availability of salad bars exploded in the early 1970s. Burger Chef, Burger King and Wendy's (among many others) all had them, but I think that Wendy's was the most extensive. People loved being able to slather blue cheese dressing, nuts, and cheese on a salad and pretend that they were dieting. I miss them. They were a great change of pace from burgers.

                                                                Ruby Tuesday's still has an excellent salad bar. I hope that they don't get rid of it.

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: gfr1111

                                                                  I don't remember a salad bar at Burger King but you are so right about Wendy's, people LOVED it! What sticks out in my mind most about it is the variety compared to what I saw in the average home. No one I knew had a selection of fixings for home salad.

                                                                2. The first salad bar in a restaurant where they served the entrees (meaning not a buffet or smorgy) was probably Chuck's Steak House in Hawaii starting in 1960 or so, but I think it was popularized when Buzzy Bent and Joey Cabell left Hawaii for Aspen and opened the first Chart House in 1961. The Chart House expanded rapidly in the 60's and the salad bar was a prominent feature.